It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Matthew 5: 31-32
So far, we have learned about certain characteristics that will be developing in the lives of all who truly belong to Jesus and wish to live lives that are pleasing to Him. Also we have seen that literalism and legalism will leave us short when it comes to acceptance by God into the Kingdom. The standards of righteousness are far beyond anything that would be accomplished by slavish application of the letter of the law as written in the scriptures.
Considering this last point, I am often amazed and also very disappointed at how quick so-called Christians are to persecute others because of a perceived sinful nature. The truth is that those who behave in this way will also fall short before the Father of the standards required. And sin is sin before God, no matter what it is. There are no degrees about such things with the Lord, those things are human inventions.
Not surprisingly, in my bible this section has the heading ‘Divorce.’ But let’s stop a moment and think about the context of this text. It has been clear, so far, that the literalist or legalistic interpretation of the words of Jesus would lead into dangerous error. Yet, when it comes to these verses we are now studying, many throw out the kind of interpretation necessary for the previous verses and suddenly become literalist.
This has led to many Christians living lives with unnecessary suffering and loneliness. At the end of the day, bad doctrine will lead to spoiled lives in the church. And those who teach it… well there is a judgement specially reserved for teachers, or so we are told in the scriptures.
In the context, so far, Jesus has been at pains to show that the application of legalism falls a long way short of the standards required by God. He pointed out, in several places, the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law. And these verses we are looking at today fall into this same interpretation. That the standards required in regard to marriage are standards that are difficult, if not impossible, to be met in the normal course of our lives.
Just as the letter of the law regarding murder is revealed differently when thinking about anger and the spirit of the law, so Jesus reveals here that the literal interpretation of the instructions about divorce leave marriage to be somewhat less than what the Lord requires and expects of marriage. In fact, the literal interpretation of the law left divorce open to abuse, and this is what was happening at the time Jesus spoke these words. Men were sending away their wives, with the certificate of divorce, for spurious reasons – including not doing housework well enough, complaining while being beaten (yes! Really! This coming from sources outside of the bible. But it is worth getting to know what is recorded by chroniclers and historians of the period), or simply not being as beautiful as the new woman who they met and who they seemed to be able to attract. It became an excuse to enter into what was effectively serial polygamy – having many wives, even though one at a time.
This means something different when you apply the divine standards. What is very rare, and is the only acceptable reason for giving the certificate of divorce, is the sexual misconduct of the wife. So if there is any other reason to send the woman away, this is not a reason acceptable to God. So all those women who were sent away with the certificate of divorce, in the Lord’s eyes, are still married! And this is why Jesus said that the woman can become a victim of adultery – because if she forms a new relationship and enters a new marriage, this is in fact adultery because in God’s eyes she is still married to the previous husband. And in the same way, any man taking such a woman, commits adultery with her.
But then if we apply a literalistic approach to what we are left with, we must at least be compassionate enough in our hearts to realise that we are left with a genuine humanitarian problem. For instance, what about the wife (or the husband) who is beaten regularly? This is not sexual immorality and so, according to these scriptures, not an acceptable reason for divorce.
Physical abuse is not the only form of cruelty. Mental cruelty is soul destroying, whether the victim is male or female. What is the solution?
For the literalist, there is a degree of acceptability in living separately, but yet without divorce and no chance of a ‘normal’ life until one of the partners has died. And so we could carry on, with other situations that are not sexual immorality and that yet would cause great suffering with a literal interpretation of these scriptures.
If we were not fallen beings, with many faults needing correction, then maybe there would be no question about such suffering, because we would all be treating one another much better all the time. But the fact is that, despite the work of salvation, yet after giving our lives to Jesus we are not yet made into perfected beings. That will not happen in this lifetime and, for the time-being, we are all works in progress. Perfection can be a target, but none of us are perfect in this life.
Would you really condemn someone to continue in a life where they constantly suffer from one form or another of cruelty? Or would you really condemn them to a life of loneliness while one partner still lives? (Because not all have the strength to live a life only as a single person – even though this was the recommended existence of the apostle Paul to Timothy. Even Paul said that it is better to marry than to burn with passion. But now, what if the literalistic or legalistic church will not allow this marriage?)
This really is not a simple question. And despite opposition to the fact that I have faced in the past, there is no simple answer either. I don’t think it is acceptable to just say that God is not a man and so we should not allow our human thinking and logic to tell us that the literal interpretation is wrong.
And yet I am saying exactly that: the literal interpretation is wrong! VERY wrong! And it condemns victims to suffering cruelty or suffering lifelong loneliness. I am one hundred percent sure that Jesus did not want us to come to the kinds of conclusions that would lead to either of these dreadful results.
Let me be very clear here: I am fully aware that the institution of the family is under a great deal of attack these days. I am therefore a defender of the family and against sexual promiscuity. I do not wish anyone to take the marriage vows lightly, but with the utmost seriousness. I am not in agreement any more with the traditional vow of obedience that sometimes is said by women – but if you choose to say this, remember it is promised to God as well as to man and you better mean it and put it into action!
I am always saddened to see any problems in marriage and families, and I am always sure that counselling, confession, openness, and time, with much prayer, should be the first courses of action.
But yet there remains those situations where cruelty exists and you would not want to subject either a man or a woman unnecessarily to further cruelty.
So let me come back to what I said at the start of this study: to take these verses in context. In the whole context of a challenge against literalism and legalism. Yes, Jesus was against both of these things, and this method of interpretation of the scriptures.
He was against it, because His words clearly demonstrate how applying these standards leaves us falling far short of the standards expected by the Father. So much so, that he said that our righteousness as His followers must surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
So, the literal interpretation of today’s verses will result in an application that is only along the lines of the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. And this is not enough to please our Father who is in heaven!
So maybe you prevent divorce and you prevent remarriage, and you will still not have a situation that is acceptable to the Father. You can back up your decision with scripture, and as a result have a perfect example of taking a text out of context and making it a pretext for bad doctrine.
The whole area of love and marriage, like everything else, is subject to the fallen nature of mankind, and to the work of salvation and reconciliation as made available to us all by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. We will not find a solution to marriage problems by applying the law. We will only find help by seeing our lives there with Christ on the cross.
And yes, sometimes that means that we need to see the marriage itself as needing to be healed by that work on the cross. Or seeing the divorce, which I think is sometimes absolutely necessary despite not being sexual immorality, as coming under the forgiving work of the cross of Jesus. This cleanses the past completely as though it was not. As far as the east is from the west, it says in the Psalms.
And so if the divorce is covered by the blood, and that past marriage wiped away, then – and this is my view, and I know that many will disagree with this – then God does no longer see a ‘divorced’ man or woman, but simply a single man or woman whose past has been washed away by the effective work of the cross.
And yes, this also applies to divorce and remarriage that happens AFTER coming to the Lord. If the cross is not effective against sin after salvation, then we are all doomed indeed – because unless you lost your life the next moment after salvation, I doubt any of us lived perfectly before God the rest of this lifetime.
I do not accept that we are to keep people in suffering because of the marriage vows, and especially not in any form of cruelty. Nor are we to be cruel as the church by preventing people from finding the normal relief from loneliness.
Yes, God calls some to remain single. But those also find fulfilment in such lives – but this is not for everyone. It is NOT acceptable to say to a divorced person that they are now called to be single for the rest of life. To do that is also to be saying that their past can’t be cleaned and made new by the work of the cross.
Our lives are in Jesus, not in the law, and only in Jesus will we be acceptable to God the Father.